The sudden democratisation of whisky criticism – whereby anyone with a laptop and an opinion can shout the odds about whatever annoys them – presents whisky producers with new problems. The bigger they are, the harder it is for them to present themselves well on the digital stage, which paradoxically favours the smallest bit-part players ever to find themselves with a global voice in a multi-billion pound industry.
Digital technology has long been regarded within the industry as an expensive inconvenience, and is paid only lip-service by most companies. Consequently, the majority of official distillery websites are an unfortunate mix of the bland, the twee and the utterly cringeworthy – unwise, considering the potential damage to brand image an inept digital marketing strategy can inflict.
My suspicion is that the vast majority of malt drinkers are happy with the blurb on the back label of their favourite dram, and remain blissfully ignorant of the vitriol, inanity and shameless bootlicking prevalent on the majority of whisky blogs, many of whose authors have clearly realised that a bit of self-publicity goes a long way in the brave new bubble of internet whisky content, and are frantically making hay while the sun shines.
The big company nightmare goes like this: Imagine you’re a brand exec for Glen Thingy. Your company has spent decades building relationships within the trade, and millions of pounds on your global marketing campaign. But when you Google your brand name, top of the page is the notorious whisky misanthrope, Billy No-Mark, loudly declaiming to the world that ‘Glen Thingy is Sh*t’. He’s a web-savvy nerd with almost no whisky knowledge, but he’s nursing an epic grudge. He might be a part-time security guard living with his mum in an Alaskan bunker, but he reads Search Engine Optimisation manuals in the bath, so he’s on Google page 1 for all your brands. Potential new customers looking for Glen Thingy are going to find him slagging off your whisky on his snazzy website. Your multi-million pound brand is at the mercy of a socially inept geek with a vicious inferiority complex.
One has to sympathise a little with their plight. Only a few years ago there were only a few people to keep happy: a long-established coterie comprising a handful of 5-star hotel managers and a few highly-qualified specialist journos.
But how long can this go on, and where does it all end? After all, 90 per cent of industry output goes to blends – a type of whisky that paradoxically has not a single blog anywhere on the internet.
Why is this crucial category so ignored? The answer is simple: blends by their nature strive for consistency, so there’s nothing to write about, besides, blend-drinkers are some of the most fiercely brand-loyal consumers in the industry.
Despite the temporary inconvenience of a global financial meltdown, the core blends are basically bulletproof – and there’s little demand for new information from people who have already found exactly what they like.
The other good news for the big companies is that as the number of whisky blogs increase, their relative importance is proportionally diluted – in the end, they’re all competing against each other for a spot on Google page one.
Also, history suggests that most blogs have a limited lifespan – many of the first whisky blogs have already died out and several second-generation efforts are wilting as their authors take jobs in the industry or succumb to the more attractive demands of having a life.
Some of the more self-important whisky bloggers would do well to remember these facts, and conduct themselves with a bit more awareness as to their actual position in the fundamental pecking order.
It’s only a matter of time before the major companies realise how few clothes the new digital emperors are actually wearing.